Charity at Christmas

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, some of the church fathers saw the giving of charity as a financial transaction which put God in debt to us  (see for example my blog: Christmas: Give a Coat, Receive Immortality).  No doubt the imagery was used as an incentive to get people to give to charity.  The idea was based on interpreting particular passages of the Gospel.  Below is a quote from St. John Chrysostom in which he portrays giving your goods to charity as a way to transfer them to heaven.  When you arrive in heaven, you will be able to reclaim your goods which will have been safely put there by those who received the charity.  St. John uses the imagery to say the best way to keep your wealth and goods and guarantee its safety until you reach heaven is to give it to the poor.

“How will our eyes bear to look upon the Judge if we have so neglected this simple command? I mean, surely I’m not recommending you to throw all your possessions away. Make the most of every time of prosperity, satisfy every need, and what is over and above put to good use by distributing to those who are hungry or frozen with the cold, and so send it ahead to your homeland by their hand so as to take advantage of it there before long.

Note that Chrysostom approves of people making use of whatever possessions they may have to satisfy their needs (not our wants and desires!).   If the times are prosperous, enjoy them to meet your needs.  It is what is beyond your needs that he advocates should be shared with the poor.

These people, you see, will be in a particular position to help you in transferring your goods there so that when you arrive you may find everything arranged to your advantage and you may enjoy greater credit there, seeing your riches multiplied by your agents – or, rather, by God’s loving kindness. After all, the transaction involves no problems, does it? It causes no worry or concern, does it? You have no need of carriers for the transfer, or of guards or anything else like that; no brigand or robber infests that route to prey upon the cargo you send. Instead, whatever you put into the hands of the poor, you put into safe custody, God’s own hand. This hand, of course, is proof against harm and provides protection for your goods, and when you arrive in your homeland, in addition to the restoration of your goods he will commend and reward you, and establish you in complete comfort and enjoyment.

Chrysostom is using imagery in a most playful yet serious way.  When you have property, goods, wealth, you end up worrying about protecting it.  You worry about keeping things safe, about protecting things.  Chrysostom says you can lay aside all those worries if you give things to the poor, because it is the same as putting your goods into God’s hands and God will safely deliver the goods to your storage in heaven.  You won’t need security or guards to protect your goods – you put them in God’s hands and God will protect them.

Don’t squander your wealth on your self – use it to benefit others.  This is his “you can have your cake and eat it too” argument.  Give from your prosperity to the poor now and then enjoy the prosperity in the world to come.

Accordingly, let us, I beseech you, pour out savings to provide for the poor, and sow seed in good time for the purpose of reaping a harvest at the proper season and not having vain regrets later through putting off the present opportunity. I mean, surely the loving Lord has not blessed you with greater benefits for this reason, that you should squander what has been given you only on your own needs and secrete the rest in safes and chests? It was not for that purpose, but rather that in accordance with the apostolic exhortation your surplus should be used to meet the needs of others. Perhaps your enjoyment extends even beyond what is needful and you spend much money on delicacies, clothing and other sorts of luxurious living, and your generosity extends even to servants and animals, whereas the poor person asks you for none of these things except to assuage his hunger and provide him with his pressing needs and daily bread so as to survive and not perish.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 48-49)


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